Cabanatuan consisted of three camps near Cebu Village, 5 to 15 miles northeast of Cabanatuan and became the largest American POW camp in the Far East. It consisted of 100 acres of land, mainly surrounded by a high barbed wire fence. The training camp originally served as a home to the Ninety-first Philippine Army Division. The complex housed three separate camps and all were in shabby condition. Camp 3 had a working supply, Camp 2 had water, but it was a thousand yards away from the camp, and Camp No. 1 had no working water supply in the beginning.
On May 26, the first Americans from Bataan arrived. They were the sick and wounded who had been left behind on Bataan. Six thousand men from Corregidor joined them three days later and they were sent to Camp 3. Another fifteen hundred more men from Corregidor arrived and they were assigned to Camp 2, but because of water conditions, the Japanese shifted them back to Camp 1 where water had been restored. The amount of men at the camp by the first week of June was about 9,000 at Camp 1 and nearly 6,000 at Camp 3. As the Japanese started to send men out in work details, Camp 3 closed in October 1942, and the approximately 3,000 men there transferred to Camp 1. During 1942, conditions in the camp remained deplorable with flies spreading dysentery and mosquitoes breeding and transmitting malaria. Because the men at Camp 1 started out in worse physical condition than the men from Corregidor who were mainly housed at Camp 3, they succumbed to disease and vitamin deficiency problems faster. By July of 1942, about 1300 men of Camp 1 had died and 32 at Camp 3 passed away.
For the men at Cabanatuan who were gravely ill, a hospital existed, but it was just made up of wood frame shacks with bamboo shelves for beds. This hospital was located in the southern third of Camp 1. The prisoners referred to this area as “Zero Ward,” because those were the chances of getting out of “Zero Ward” alive. The doctors mainly stayed by the dying men, offering encouragement as they rarely had medicine to dispense. The ward housed a primitive operating room, but it wasn’t used much as the doctors had no equipment. In July 1942 a staggering number of 786 deaths occurred, mainly men under thirty. These men had no wife or children to count on them, faced a real test in life for the first time, did not possess the money some of the older men had, and also lacked the maturity to deal with difficult circumstances.
In 1943, conditions improved some, because of a black market and the farm set up at the camp. A slow moving group of caraboa pulled carts bringing in supplies from the town of Cabanatuan. Sympathetic Filipinos and members of the Manila international community used these hauling carts to smuggle in notes and money. During this time, recreation and entertainment programs were developed.
Then in 1944, conditions became worse again, as the Japanese cut down on rations and cracked down on smuggling. Men shipped out on “hellships” that took them to camps in Japan and Manchuria and other surrounding areas to work in Japanese industries as the Japanese’s labor supply had diminished due to the war.
In 1945, the men left at Cabanatuan numbered around 500. The U.S. Sixth Ranger Battalion, along with local guerilla groups, liberated the camp on January 31, 1945.
REPORT ON AMERICAN PRISONERS OF WAR INTERNED BY THE JAPANESE IN THE PHILIPPINES Prepared by OFFICE OF THE PROVOST MARSHAL GENERAL 19 November 1945 CABANATUAN CAMP ONE
REPORT ON AMERICAN PRISONERS OF WAR INTERNED BY THE JAPANESE IN THE PHILLIPINES (Cabanatuan) Prepared by Office of the Provost Marshal General November, 19 1945 on Cabanatuan (includes Regulations, Fire Precaution, Sanitation, Maintenance, Food, Work Details, Medical Supplies, Pay, Burials, Brutalities and Atrocities, Recreation and Religious Services 19 Pages)
from Ken Wheeler, in a document prepared for his children, called, "For My Children
I was not prepared for the horror of the camp at Cabanatuan. It was a former Philippine Army temporary training camp of flimsy grass roofed buildings with dirt floors and no doors. There were no sanitary facilities, except open latrines, and drinking water came from and occasional outside faucet. Both water came from shallow open dirty wells dug near each group of buildings. The barracks were completely open at the bottom and consisted of two tiers of bamboo covered platforms running along either side of the central dirt walk-away. The sides were covered by woven “suwali” or split reed. There were no lights in the barracks. The cooking facilities were primitive, consisting of large cast iron “kawas” or pots which were heated by wood fires. Here again the diet was an even smaller issue of straight boiled rice three times each day with an occasional watery, leafy soup.
Disease was rampant in the camp. Already there was ahead of us what remained of the American troops from Bataan. These were the survivors of the “Death March” and the infamous Camp O’Donnell ordeal which followed. The majority of the prisoners had malaria or dysentery or both, and medical care was virtually hopeless since our own doctors were sick as well and none had enough medicine to really help. The Japanese guards seldom came inside the barbed wire enclosures, and then only with masks on.
They threw our over the fence once each day and the remaining time kept their distance in the guard towers and sentry positions. Our pleas for help went completely unheeded. The comparatively well prisoners had great difficulty caring for the sick and the death rate was very high. We lost upwards of thirty men each day for the first three months, not counting those who were executed.
Attempts to escape were invariably punished by 24-36 hours of torture, then execution by shooting or beheading. Reprisals against the innocent were common. We were divided up into groups of ten, which we laughingly called our “running mates” because the purpose of the groupings was to prevent escapes. If one of the ten attempted escape, the other nine were executed. Dietary deficiencies such as beriberi, scurvy and pellagra soon began to appear, causing acute discomfort, pain and numerous deaths. An epidemic of diphtheria likewise took an enormous toll of life before some anti-toxin was smuggled into the camp by Catholic priests under their vestments. The Filipino or European priests were at first allowed into the camp to hold mass on Sundays and did much good, but this privilege was soon withdrawn like so many other small concessions allowed for short periods only.